"Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates" (BNA)
It took real chutzpah for this country singer from Luttrell, Tenn., to toss his Stetson in the ring recently against rappers 50 Cent and Kanye West, suggesting they watch their backs in case he slipped by them in their over-hyped race to the top of the pop sales chart.
To no one's great surprise, Chesney came in a distant, if still respectable, third to the hip-hoppers. But anyone still looking for a sure bet will find one in this album, the first he's recorded since the widely watched meltdown of his brief marriage in 2005 to Renée Zellweger. Even nongamblers could safely put down some serious money predicting that he'll instantly rotate Jim Collins and Brett James' "Wife and Kids" into a prime spot in his concert set list, where it's certain to reduce his adoring female fan base to a molten mass of quivering brides-to-be.
He sings of how blessed he is to have the career he's got yet laments that "at the end of the day, I still go home alone / I still hope some day I'll have a wife and kids." By the same token, Scooter Cansoe and Lady Goodman's "Better as a Memory" is bound to unleash the waterworks as he croons the realization that "I'm better as a memory than as your man."
In one respect, the new album is a rarity in that Chesney hasn't written a word that he's sung. It's as if he wants to be sure no one construes anything here as autobiographical comment on the disintegration of that tabloid-ready relationship. Nevertheless, even singing songs written by others exclusively, there's a more serious tone in his choices that can't escape notice, especially following the comparatively lightweight nature of his last two albums.
"Wife and Kids" and "Memory" sound closer to his heart than the curiosity that is Brett James and Don Schlitz's "Dancin' for the Groceries," an ode of solidarity with a hardworking stripper with the requisite heart o' gold. Joe Walsh pipes in with his anachronistic guitar-voice processor on Dwight Yoakam's "Wild Ride," and Chesney yanks wholesome George Strait to the wild side with the quasi-novelty, carefully enunciated workingman's blues, "Shiftwork."
The album title raises the question of just who Kenny Chesney is: He's never going to be confused with Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard. But in the reflective, occasionally self-pitying mode he's in much of the time here, there are welcome signs he's also not going to settle for the Margaritaville side of Jimmy Buffettland he had been slip-sliding into lately.
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